#everydayposer: Contents Under Pressure!

Ahhh, so we have been exploring stretching. And now we are coming to the time of year when we stretch our stomachs. Hello holidays! Let’s revisit the drawing of areas in the body that tend to have tension:IMG_1498

In my last post, I exhibited how stretching the back of the legs can have a release throughout the entire back side of the body. I also, in my blog before last, explained that stretching is a temporary thing due to the elasticity of muscular tissues. So here, in THIS post, we see that my little stick person rather than stretch regularly AND change lifestyle habits (in this case wearing those 1-inch heels), the heels have remained and tension patterns are still present.

No problem–if things get a little tight in the back, there is plenty of room in front, right? Except that this poor little stick person is likely to suffer from back pain if the abdominal muscles aren’t able to provide support. Enter the six-pack abs!

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Everything looks good now! And unfortunately, many, many fitness and health professionals will do exactly that: add tension to help with tension. Which works, sort of, until….

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We see A LOT of abnormal abdominal issues in our country. And not just at Thanksgiving. Issues that have to do with pressure (no stick pictures on what that looks like–I’m going to let your imagination run wild!). Pressure caused by tension. By each of us, to ourselves. It’s time to stop the madness.

Stretching may only create a temporary release to tight muscles. And that is a good thing to do because, even for a little while, you can relax. But more importantly, attempting to stretch an area that is tight lets you know that it IS tight. The next step isn’t to tighten up more, but to find out why the tension is there in the first place. And then start to change your lifestyle, slowly, and stretch, regularly, and you might find that over time you feel better. In many ways. You sleep better, don’t burp as much, your knees don’t ache as much, tension headaches disappear, constipation is eased, sneezing doesn’t require a change of pants…..you get the picture.

So, enjoy your holidays. Enjoy your family. Take a walk and stretch your legs together. Eat together. Sit on the floor together. Hang from a tree together. If you go shopping, look for shoes without heels for each other. I have some other gift thoughts as well: a Squatty Potty, toe separators–like from a pedicure–or toe separator socks, yoga classes (maybe from yours truly?), a hanging bar for your house–even better, line a hallway with several bars so you can monkey swing! There are lots of ways to relax and relieve pressure. And wouldn’t that be the BEST way to enjoy the season?!!

Everyday Poser–Yoga in the Loo

I hear this a lot: “I don’t have time to do yoga.” That is why I started this feature of my blog called #everydayposer and am featuring ways to sneak postural awareness into your life. I would love for you to make time to come to classes, too, of course. And especially classes at On The Path Yoga (wink wink). But, even if you come to classes two or three times a week, it is the daily practice of awareness that will begin to bring your practice to fullness and light.

So today, let’s shed a little light on your bathroom. How much time do you spend there brushing your teeth and you know, sitting around? Two ideas to bring yoga into your day without adding a minute of time to your schedule:

#1 a calf stretch while brushing teeth or washing hands:

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Most of our back body tightness starts here, so to relieve back pain, this is the BEST way to start your day! (Even better than Folger’s in your cup.)

#2 a deeper squat whilst sitting:

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I sort of can’t believe that I’m posting a picture of me on the toilet, but, here it is with our bamboo Squatty Potty that we have in the studio. So that makes this photo sort of classy. I have a less classy version at home. And I had a member describe the Red Green version her husband created with paint cans and duct tape. Super classy!

The importance of this position for proper elimination can’t be overemphasized. It is the design of the body to squat to poo, but most American toilets have the hips high–sometimes even higher than the knees. Anatomically, the rectum is in a forward position and cannot easily relax unless the hips are flexed closer to 30 degrees. A squat also does a whole lot of good for low backs, too. And healthy knees. Not to mention how important it is to take the hips through their entire range of motion.

So there you have it. Two ways to integrate postural awareness into your day. If it seems too basic to be yoga asana, well, try to come into Warrior pose with calves, hips, or lumbar that are too tight. Try entering into a meditative state while feeling constipated. I’ll end with a quote from Vanda Scarafelli: “As the sun opens the flowers delicately, unfolding them little by little, so the yoga exercises and breathing open the body during a slow and careful training. When the body is open, the heart is open.”

Open your heart when you close that bathroom door and try a little yoga in the loo!

Everyday Poser: Walk the Plank!

I’m seeing all sorts of plank challenges happening. It’s cool to plank. Here is a photo of me planking a chair:

(pretty cool, but not as cool as the van!)

(pretty cool, but not as cool as the van!)

Planking is a great way to build tone in what is commonly referred to as “the core.” But (and by that I mean BUTT), here is the deal: most of us WAY overuse our gluteus maximus for standing. I do it all the time (although I am working on it! #everydayposer). Here is me standing with a thrust pelvis, tight glutes, internally rotated shoulders,and a dumb look on my face:

Notice how my hips are in front of the rope, but my heels are aligned with it.

Notice how my hips are in front of the rope, but my heels are aligned with it.

If you stand that way, then most likely you are planking that way. And holding a plank position is going to reduce your awareness of alignment, strengthening muscles that are already overused. There is a way of finding body alignment that is very subtle. What happens the moment you learn to ride a bike? Are you suddenly stronger? No, you just have found an inner awareness that coordinates all your movements. It won’t help you to find this by riding the bike harder or longer with training wheels.

Rather than holding a bad plank for 1-5 minutes, try to walk the plank. That’s right–and I’m sorry it isn’t National Talk Like A Pirate Day, because you could simultaneously say arrrgh while doing this and be as cool as participating in a plank challenge. But yesterday was March Forth, so go with that and make this month be your time to retrain the way you walk.

The key to stimulating the core musculature lies in your heels. If you want to stand, walk, or plank well, you must place a lot of effort into your heels. It’s easy to activate the kinetic link in your heels standing, just back your hips up until they are over your heels. It will be harder to then align the rest of your body, especially if you are a pelvic thruster. But you will begin to find your core while you find your alignment. Then, walk by pushing back with your heels. If you have a tendency of keeping tension in your glutes, this will be difficult at first and feel like walking in downhill ski boots. RELAX YOUR BOOTY! Use your hamstrings instead. Glide back with a straight leg. Your glutes will engage at the last portion of your step when you move into an extended hip and then relax when you flex the hip forward, as designed. Each step should be a core strengthening plank. Bonus: you can walk for a much longer time than you can hold a plank.

Walking this way will be more beneficial metabolically as well. Chronically tense muscles eventually become metabolically inactive. Yep–if you are pulling your bottom forward while standing or walking to make it look smaller, eventually it will become bigger. Dang. And so not cool.

Finally, if you insist on planking, rather than hold it, try moving in and out of your plank using your triceps (with relaxed glutes, straight hips, and neutral spine). If you cannot do it, then drop your knees to the floor. Your body to strength ratio for your upper body is whacked, which means you are hurting your shoulders while holding your plank as well. If shoulders creep up or elbows turn out, you’ll be tearing at your rotator cuff while planking. Again, not cool.

Learn plank like you would learn to ride a bike. It isn’t really possible to just balance on a bike without moving. Likewise, it isn’t really likely you will find your true core musculature in long-term holding of plank. Remember your body design is meant for movement and most likely you are in a holding pattern too much of your day already. Move more and start walking the plank!

Everyday Poser–Walking in the Snow!

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Here is what my neighborhood looked like this morning. Usually when things go winter around here, I get asked (told?), “you didn’t walk TODAY did you???”

Yes. I walk everyday. Walking is the best pose you can do for your body, yogis. And walking on varied surfaces is important for all kinds of reasons. Mostly this morning, my lateral hip muscles got a bit of challenge. These are called the Tensor Fascia Lattae. Which always makes me want coffee. But I had it before I left the house and I LOVED my morning practice of “walkasana” in the snow. See:

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Meditation Part Deux

Last week I listened to a podcast by my favorite blogger, Katy Bowman, regarding changing habits. She explained to REALLY master a new concept, you need to study 10,000 hours. Which sounds like a lot. Because it is. But wait, she parcels it out and if you study or practice 8 hours a day, that mastery will take about three years. Which still sounds hard, but doable. It takes 4 years to earn a college degree (or if you’re like me and don’t, umm, actually study 8 hours a day, it might take several years longer). Katy was talking about exercise, which I love to do for 8 hours a day. I am in total agreement with her that a body needs to be active most of the day to achieve optimum health. When you like something, and especially when you are already good at it, spending 3 years mastering it seems perfectly reasonable.

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My new goal is to explore deeper awareness. Meditation has never been my forte. I like to walk and there is such a thing as moving meditation, but I want to learn more disciplined meditation. Which, from what I understand, means not moving and not thinking. First off, I like to move, so the sitting in stillness part is hard for me. And then there is my mind. Occasionally I feel moments where something “deeper” is happening while I sit and quiet my mind and body. Soon however, I am thinking–about my last Facebook post and how many responses it got and whether I should be wittier or wondering what is for dinner and reminding myself to remember my mother’s birthday. Oh, and then there was the time two weeks ago when I absolutely could not exhale. What. was. that? I’m pretty sure that although moving and thinking are out, breathing is good for meditation.

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Yesterday I read in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika these words: “the yogi who meditates on the self, takes moderate and pure food and practices siddhasana (a yoga posture) for twelve years, attains siddhi (mastery).” TWELVE YEARS??? Of sitting? And thinking pure thoughts? AND eating well? It seemed extreme–even longer than getting a degree! But I am not doing this for hours every day. 10,000 hours divided by 30 minutes and minus some days is probably more like a gazillion years until mastery. Using all caps and expressing impatience when writing about *enlightenment* is probably a sign that I need a few thousand extra hours as well.

My last post made meditation seem easy. And really–certain aspects of living a meditative life is pretty straight forward. Breathe and think, right? Take action from a place of awareness and intention. And that is exactly right. And generally easy to do unless you live with a three-year old. But what about that enlightenment thingy? Is there a deeper dimension to be-ing?

More from Swami Muktibodhananda in the HYP: “Within us are planes of existence, areas of consciousness, which are in absolute darkness. These planes are much more beautiful and creative than the ones we live on now. However, how are we going to penetrate and illuminate them?”

Which is exactly what I was teaching last week in my yoga classes–but I was referring to the physical body rather than pure consciousness.We attempted to enliven our physical awareness–by engaging certain muscles and coming fully into poses, by breath work, by coordination, and by releasing energy and learning how to relax certain muscles. All of which helps us to become more embodied–more alive in the present moment. For anyone that has a reason NOT to illuminate all the darker areas of the body, this is difficult to achieve. After active asanas, there is a brief meditation done in savasana. That pose is generally not translated, because literally it is “corpse pose.” There is a certain yuckiness to doing corpse pose, but everybody loves *savasana*!

I like to think that by embracing our death, we become more alive and that savasana illuminates that darker dimension to our bodily presence. That it makes each moment more meaningful. But to really go there, to really embrace our full human essence, we must accept that we are not ultimately in control. That loss happens–and really, really, it will.

That is a really big, dark, and scary shadow across those other “beautiful and creative” planes of existence. And our beautiful, creative, and rational minds believe that it might be better to think about something else. Anything else. I don’t really have a problem achieving the fullness of embodiment, but appreciating the fullness of dis-embodiment sucks. And yet, there are those gurus and swamis and enlightened ones that make it sound worth the effort…

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So it will take time. Practice. Patience. Probably at least 12 years. But I do hope that I can illuminate all the planes of existence during my lifetime. I am pretty pleased to be here. I hope to be here a long time. And I would like to see all the beauty on every dimension possible. Because, beauty, is well, a beautiful thing. Pretty enlightening, huh?

A Better Way

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Okay–first a confession. This is a reposted blog. I have been taking my meditation practice to a deeper level and wanted to write about that. But. I am still working on what is an incredibly personal journey and not ready to put it out into the world. Next posting, I promise. In the meantime a better way to stress reduction than the above instructions:

Want to make some one who is stressed out really blow a fuse? Tell them they need to learn how to meditate and calm down. Yet, when stress begins to affect health, isn’t this exactly what should be done? If you want a fun challenge, become a health educator and try to “help” someone in this situation:

Meet Joe and Jane Stressmore. Both have a lot of excess weight around their midsections. Joe has high blood pressure and borderline diabetes. Jane has chronic low back pain, problems with urinary incontinence, and diabetes. Neither has been able to lose weight, no matter what program they try. It all comes back and then some. Their doctor has them on several medications, which has helped alleviate some of their symptoms, but the side effects are problematic. Neither sleeps well, both are working full time, and there is no way they can exercise, eat well, and certainly not “slow down.”

Metabolic Syndrome is associated with chronic stress and the release of a the hormone cortisol. Stress hormones are helpful when the stress is physical and short lived, but when it is not, these hormones have a detrimental effect on our bodies, resulting in more imbalance, more stress, and more problems including disease symptoms like Joe and Jane are experiencing. Medicine doesn’t fix the underlying problem–although it does help keep it from becoming life threatening (hopefully).

Meditation is often recommended as an alternative approach to reduce chronic stress and the symptoms associated with it. Numerous scientific studies utilizing biofeedback techniques have tracked its effectiveness and the body/mind connection. Everyone enjoys the feeling of being rested and relaxed. Wellness and health practitioners (even doctors!) know that Joe and Jane would actually begin to FIX their health problems by reducing the release of cortisol through relaxation techniques and lifestyle changes.

Most yoga classes end by teaching a bit of deep relaxation and meditation. Many of my students like this part of class best. Aside from any reflection on my teaching abilities, I am always a bit taken aback by the fact that their favorite part of class is when we are doing nothing at all. Why go through an hour and a half of class when the best part is the last five minutes? Couldn’t we just do nothing at home? Why don’t we?

I think the answer is that we have no idea how. Life in the twenty first century doesn’t exactly encourage stillness. In today’s families, both parents usually work, children have full schedules with school and after-school activities, even our dogs have “play dates” so they can socialize, at least with other dogs, since the humans are too busy to play. Generally, any “down time” becomes an escape, via television or other distraction, rather than true meditation. Taking a moment to stop, breath, and be fully present just isn’t in the cards. And it will take something far more compelling than a doctor’s recommendation or a scientific study to convince us to even try.

Matthieu Ricard’s book, The Quantum and the Lotus compares the realities of physics and the mind. Just as subatomic particles exist between the spaces, our truest sense of ourselves is found between the spaces of our thoughts. If we never stop and find space, we don’t fully know who we are and what we might become. Joe and Jane are good people. Their health struggle is not who they are; and it is most likely not how they want their lives to be defined.

Here is the cool thing: in quantum physics, particles are not bound by constraints like time and space. Those little buggers break all the rules. That’s science, folks. If you think it’s bogus, get a PhD in physics (like Ricard) and test it yourself.

Here’s the other cool thing: we aren’t really bound by time and space, either. If you think that is bogus, become a Buddhist monk (like Ricard) and spend a few years experiencing it.

When we take–even a tiny bit–of time to be present “between the spaces” we step out of time and space. We learn to let go–even at tiny bit–of that which binds us. You probably know someone who defies what we think of as “rules:” the skinny coworker who eats like a horse, the neighbor with a sick wife who still helps his elderly parents mow their lawn, the couple who always participates in fundraisers for good causes and don’t seem to have that much money…I KNOW you know someone that fits into at least one of those categories.

Letting go of our expectations of the future and our delusions of our past creates the opportunity for breaking the rules that bind us and stress us out. Ricard calls it living in the freshness of this present moment. To me, that single phrase is more compelling than any stack of medical studies or advice from my doctor. I want to rewrite the rules that have brought me down and find my true destiny in this life. So do my yoga students, and I feel sure that Joe and Jane want it, too. Meditation begins with that desire. The next step is to breathe. Simple enough so far, right? The great news is that is the whole process. Be present and breathe. You can do it no matter where you are.

So rather than doing meditation because it is good for you, maybe do it because you are secretly the kind of person that likes to break the rules. See what happens! Put your mind to doing nothing at all and notice what gets accomplished! And remember, don’t do it ‘cause I told you to. Do it because your destiny should be defined not by what limits you, but rather by what liberates you.